The myth of the ‘game-changer’ weapon
Near the end of World War II, Nazi Germany unleashed a host of “miracle weapons” (Wunderwaffen) on the Allies, in a last-ditch attempt to stave off defeat. These secret weapons included the V-1 flying bomb, the V-2 missile, the Me-163 “Komet” rocket-powered fighter jet, and the Me-262 – the world’s first operational jet fighter. The Germans also developed the world’s first remote-controlled glide bombs and heat-seeking air-to-air missiles.
These weapons were impressive, and some – particularly the V-1 and V-2 – were even terrifying. But none won the war for the Germans or even delayed the eventual Allied victory. They could have been game-changers, but instead they ended up as museum pieces.
And this is the problem with the whole “game-changer” argument when it comes to “new and amazing” weapons: They actually rarely tip the balance in war. They may be new and they may be amazing, but in the end they are just one tool in a rather large toolbox comprising the whole operational art of war fighting.
The J-16D fighter and the DF-21D
Take the case of the J-16D, a new Chinese fighter jet based on the Russian-designed Su-30MKK. In a recent article in The National Interest, the author, Sebastien Roblin, makes a powerful case that this plane could turn out to be a game-changer for the Chinese, particularly in the South China Sea (although, to be fair, he never uses the term “game-changer”).
The J-16D is an electronic-warfare plane, equivalent to the US EA-18G Growler. Roblin speculates that it could carry two or three jamming pods under its wings and fuselage, “each optimized [to different] radar frequencies.” Such a configuration would still permit the aircraft to carry up to six anti-radiation missiles. Such a weapon, he implies, could “pose a nightmare” for large Aegis-equipped warships, the kind operated by the US, Japanese, South Korean, and Australian navies.
Now, from reading other articles by Roblin, it is clear that he is not an alarmist. And he is not the first analyst to credit the Chinese too much for their “superb and secret weapons.”
About a decade ago, many in the Western China-watching community were similarly panicked over China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. This ASBM, it was argued, was such a novel weapon that there was “no defense against it.” Hence the DF-21D was deemed a “carrier-killer,” one that in particular threatened the US Navy’s whole approach to carrier-based strike operations.
The DF-21D is certainly a uniquely threatening weapon, but Western assessments of it being a game-changer have been tempered in recent years by the fact that US countermeasures have also improved, plus an acknowledgement of the limitations that the Chinese still face when it comes to things like target acquisition and terminal homing.
Other presumed game-changers include hypersonic missiles or the Russian Shkval torpedo, which uses super-cavitation technology (basically creating a bubble of air around itself) to travel at speeds of up to 200 knots (370km/h). Again, the presumption is that there is no way to defend against these weapons.
Disruptive deterrent or war-winner?
For a weapon to be a genuine game-changer, it must be truly disruptive as a deterrent or a piece of war-fighting equipment. In other words, it must either undeniably discourage an opponent from thinking about engaging in conflict in the first place, or else be unequivocally critical to ending a conflict.
Few weapons can meet such high standards. Even nuclear weapons – perhaps the greatest game-changer – have in fact had little impact on most inter-state conflict over the past 70 years. To be sure, they have probably played a critical role in preventing nuclear-armed states from going to war – at a nuclear level. Nuclear-armed states rarely clash with each other, and when they do, they almost immediately attempt to defuse and de-escalate crises so as not to lead to a nuclear exchange (such as the Cuban missile crisis or the 2001 Sino-American EP-3 incident).
But nuclear weapons have not prevented nuclear powers from skirmishing with each other in other ways, such as proxy wars (Vietnam during the Cold War or Syria today) or in competitions over regional hegemonies or spheres of influence – for example, the US-China duel over “indisputable sovereignty” versus “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea.
Moreover, states with nuclear forces do not appear to have enjoyed any special leverage or power over countries that do not possess such weapons. Non-nuclear Japan does not defer to nuclear-armed China when it comes to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, nor does Vietnam or the Philippines appear to be cowed by Beijing in the South China Sea.
Ultimately, there are two major flaws with the “game-changer” argument. In the first place, it can lead to the mistaken impression that military predominance might be gained simply by acquiring a single piece of equipment (a fighter jet, a missile, a submarine). In reality, military power is synergistic, a collection of a number of disparate, mutually supporting systems (General Dwight D Eisenhower, for example, ranked the humble Jeep and the C-47 cargo plane as two of the key “tools of victory” in World War II, along with the atomic bomb and other armaments).
More critically, however, the idea of “game-changer” weapons trivializes the whole operational art of war. It reduces war fighting to just hardware. But war and conflict are more than just equipment – they are tactics and training, leadership and morale, geography, logistics, and just plain luck.